The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie


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IS IT ART, BUT

(ArtWork 76 - October/November 1995)

There must be some reason for the Glaswegian 'but' at the end of a remark like 'It's a great day, but'. Across the country in the ethnically different Edinburgh, they would say 'it's a great day, well'. This is a site-specific curiosity, like putting brown sauce on fish and chips in the east, and vinegar on them in the west.

Unrequited linguistic appendages can intrude internationally into greater comments than trivial abstractions about weather as exemplified by Marcel Duchamp's "The bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even". Here, the first part is ambiguous enough without Marcel adding on an 'even' at the end. Another example is Robert Burns's "man to man the world oe'r shall brithers be for a' that". You'd think that Robert would have stopped at 'brithers be' to make his point, but no, there's the afterthought of 'for a' that' - so what are the Glasgow and Edinburgh folk and Marcel and Rabbie, getting at?

These brief and intrusive expressions at the end of a statement seem to suggest some uncertainty as to it's initial content being fully realised. The tentative 'but' or 'well' can be forgiven when appended to a trivial comment about weather - for in our climate no-one can confidently forecast its pattern, but the ambiguous profundity of Duchamps's 'even' is not so easy to understand.

 

Happily this ambiguity allows any interpretations, and 'even' might mean he is being artistically tentative - for that was the way of the man. Robert Burns's 'for a' that' demands wider consideration. Had he misgivings as to whether we would ever 'brithers be'? The global continuity of ethnic upheavals would certainly justify him putting Utopia on hold with an open-ended 'for a' that'.

Art, like Burns's idealism, is highly aspirational, but its loftiness and inconclusive ambiguity can suffer from exposure. It is also elusive, and what many artists think they are arting about now might not be what they're really on about at all. If any of it is to be meaningful, the work will reveal itself in its own good time, so we just have to wait to discover if the idea articulates its value. This is a precarious ascent, for the air of lucidity can be thin and you can't hide on a narrow ledge. It could be easy to 'all fall down' - and serve the chancers right.

Awkward Andre Breton warned us about the danger of reaching a 'comfortable equilibrium', and that the dynamic state of liberty he recommended should be based on a continual erethism - the Greek word for irritation... 'erethism'. If it's new to you, keep scratching the erithismic itch and its truth will be revealed.

Andre Breton - and no doubt the Andre of the bricks, would be delighted at the recent surge to re-charge the continuity of erethism by exhibitions of irritating art which lots of people don't think is art at all - or don't think is very good art even if they can bring themselves to admit that it could be art. There is always an obligatory outcry about modern art stirring things up, but this predictable irritation is much better than being bored - except that boredom often seems to be the intention of some of the practitioners. Maybe that is what they're really after, and if so, congratulations for doing it so well.

My complaint about this trend is the tendency to exclude other like but different minds. It is as though the irritation of art has just been invented by a few, and that there was no itch beforehand. This conceit does not always recognise the link with earlier dynamisms, and the maturity of the new energies is retarded by ill-consideration of the old.

To deny art an all-embracing organic growth narrows its creative potential and is counter-productive to the very ideas that some believe can only be understood by them. I hope, but doubt, if this will irritate those who think that anyone, entitled to occupy premier art space has to zoom in from elsewhere or pulsate with what old Ruskin called 'pathetic excitement'. Of course there are exceptions, but too few, and the malaise seems particularly bad when curators are in autocratic sympathy with a brat brigade, brand new from the supremacy of art colleges.

The same is probably true elsewhere, but I hope that others elsewhere will likewise irritate elsewhere, but also bear in mind the requir-ment to irritate the nearby.

If any of this smacks of self-interest let me assure you that it is just that - but it is also an expression of the frustration of mature artists. Maybe the wrinkly brigade are better off up in their attics rather than acting like geriatric hippies at a disco. Bear in mind that the Tate selectors recently had the sagacity to present stalwarts like Joseph Beuys, born in 1921 (like me, a very good year), and Louise Bourgeois, born in 1911 beating young Joseph by ten years. Louise says... 'Art is not about Art. Art is about life, and that sums it up', and so it does, and I'll disco dance with her any time!

If alternative sources of irritation are required, there is no need to jet too far. Curators, here's a tip, get out and about amongst the natives, but there must be no attempt to measure their particular itchiness against irritation from elsewhere. If you want to curate a worry or two, there are many brave-hearts nearby to help you do it. Moreover, if any of that public which constitutes the 'life' mentioned by Louise Bourgeois, finds its way into a worrying exhibition and consequently feels inclined to protest at how much they are troubled by the experience, fear not, for out of the erithismic mist the native subversives will spring to your side. And when the fiendish doubters ask, "but is it art?", together they will nod and confidently proclaim... "It sure is, but."

Essay reproduced from My Words by George Wyllie, with permission.

Art outside the gallery
On Pulling Down A Straw Statue
Robert Burns

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